A Gathering of Women

Thursday night I did something I’ve never done before. I sat in a small circle of women and talked about what it was like to be diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. It was part of the local Komen affiliate’s monthly “Conversations for the Cure,” and instead of a featured speaker, this one focused on survivors sharing stories.

I blogged about support groups in February, with tips from professionals on what to look for in one. I never had the urge to join a support group during my treatment, and I didn’t suddenly develop the urge now. I had an ulterior motive in that I thought there might be an opportunity to mention my book, since you’re supposed to do that networking/marketing thing. As soon as I walked in and saw that small circle of metal folding chairs, I knew this wasn’t the time or place.

Walking into that room also induced a flashback. The only other time I’ve ever done anything like this was in the early ’70s, when one of the more progressive girls at my North Dakota high school started one of the consciousness raising groups so in vogue at the time. I don’t recall my consciousness being raised to any extent; all I remember is taking home a plastic speculum with advice to get out a hand mirror and learn to celebrate myself (which in hindsight seems ludicrous. It’s entirely possible, and preferable, to celebrate yourself without a DIY pelvic. What can I say? It was the ’70s.)

But I digress. In the here and now, our ages ranged from 70-something to 37. Our diagnoses ranged from stage 0 DCIS and lobular cancer to stage 2 and stage 3. One of us had opted for tram flap surgery and one for implants, while two had opted for prostheses. Three of us had single mastectomies, while two opted for the preventive bilateral. Two are dealing with lymphedema, with one wearing that compression sleeve I’ve come to recognize.

Two women had pain in their breasts before they were diagnosed, which surprised me, and them too. We had been under the impression that breast cancer sneaks up on you without pain (and sometimes it does).

I learned that the sentinel node biopsy apparently sucks even more than the stereotactic biopsy. (By the way, there was no consensus regarding the stereotactic’s general suckiness. Mine was by far the worst part of my experience, and I know others who agree. Some women here said theirs weren’t so bad.)

I had a sentinel node biopsy as part of my mastectomy, so I missed the pleasure of having a needle inserted into the nipple area to shoot dye into the lymph nodes. Not one woman had a positive thing to say about the procedure.

A couple of women talked about living with the fear of reoccurrence, that feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. A couple of us talked about how when you have early stage cancer, you feel sheepish even thinking of yourself as a survivor.

What struck me about this experience was how readily women share, and how good it feels to know you’re not alone. Freud called it “the talking cure.” While he was referring to formal psychoanalysis, there’s no denying the healing power that kicks in when women gather to share stories.

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